There really is nothing to fear in an Irish language act…

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin is Director of Education with Gael Linn.

Nobody will be disadvantaged for not being able to speak Irish. No school children will be forced to learn Irish against their will and no street name signs will be erected in Irish where they are not wanted. It will not cost too much; somewhere in the region of £4m per annum initially, it is estimated. Neither will there be employment quotas on language grounds.

The proposed legislation will however, offer Irish speakers (10.7% at the last census for which we have data, 2011) the same rights already afforded Welsh speakers in Wales, Gaidhlig speakers in Scotland and Irish speakers in the Republic of Ireland. Irish will finally have an official status conferred on it where it currently enjoys none.

The provisions and protections long-sought by Pobal, An Dream Dearg, Conradh na Gaeilge, Gael Linn as well as many others will move our society further towards normalising a core aspect of our common heritage and our shared future.

‘Resolute action’ for Irish was promised in the internationally brokered Good Friday Agreement in 1998, 23 years ago. Those charged with this action have balked at introducing the legislation to enable necessary resolutions. Then in 2003, 18 years ago, a Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments reaffirmed their intentions to discharge commitments relating to the Irish language in the Good Friday Agreement.

At St. Andrew’s in 2006 then, 15 years ago, the introduction of an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and the Republic of Ireland to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language was declared. As part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020, soon to be 2 years ago, a Programme of Government reflecting and underpinned by the principle of commitment to an Irish language strategy and the appointment of an Irish language commissioner and setting up a translation hub was announced in order to re-establish the Assembly.

Irish was a redline issue now. To underline the slow but inevitable bending of the arc of Irish language legislation, in June of this year, soon to be 6 months ago, the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, reiterated his Government’s commitment to introducing Irish language legislation in October 2021.

On 27th of October 2021, it fell to Conor Burns, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, to announce from the dispatch box in Westminster that the wait would not now be too long but as soon as parliamentary time allows a subsequent letter to parties confirmed with an invitation to technical briefing.

There will be no triumphalism when this legislation is brought forward because legislation is only one aspect of language revitalisation albeit an important one. It will merely signal our time to start in earnest playing catch-up. Wales secured such legislation in 1967, 54 years ago. The Republic of Ireland agreed to its Official Languages Act in 2003 and Scotland signed off on their Gaelic Language Act in 2005.

The imminent legislation here will help in making more services available for Irish and through Irish. The visibility of the language will increase gradually where appropriate. Irish Medium Education will continue to grow. There will be more widespread access to one of the great sources of ancient western wisdom and enhanced community reconciliation through exposure to a shared Gaelic heritage.

Importantly, steps will need to be taken to promote languages including the Irish language in primary and post-primary English medium schools. A fit for purpose languages strategy in education to improve uptake in Irish and other languages will be required for it has been sorely lacking for far too long.

The East Belfast Irish language Turas project demonstrates what can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. Conversely, the difficulties experienced by those forward thinking community activists who eventually found a way to set up the first Irish Medium Nursery School in the same East Belfast, Naíscoil na Seolta, serve as a reminder that Irish is a contested issue here for some which of course it does not deserve to be.

Notwithstanding the progress made in recent years many problems still exist. Advances have been made in Irish Medium Education as indicated earlier. Much ground has been made in the setting up of Irish language cultural centres like those in Belfast, Derry and Armagh. The quality and quantity of Irish language related content on public broadcasting on radio, television and on digital platforms, has improved and increased.

The number of adults attending night classes is growing year on year. But all is not well. One problem often cited is the failure of statutory bodies to provide their services through Irish. When Irish language speakers lose heart and accept an English language equivalent for the service sought, a dog licence for example, this provides the statutory body grounds for a claim of there being little or no demand for such services in Irish.

The ‘make it almost impossible and then claim there is insufficient demand’ school of administration will have to end once legislation is brought forward. Irish, the indigenous language of the land, can no longer be overlooked by policy makers or bolted on at the last minute to conceal the appearance of having forgotten to include it.

An example of this was an issue which arose regarding free transport to schools. Legislators, it seems, failed to bear in mind that the nearest Irish Medium post-primary school for a pupil may be 30 miles away with only a taxi making that round trip to and from school possible. In 2011 the High Court ruled on this instructing the Department of Education to remove barriers to Irish Medium Education given the catchment area for this post-primary provision being so widely geographically dispersed.

Mr. Justice Treacy concluded that this duty, namely to enable pupils to attend an Irish Medium school, was ‘not merely aspirational’ but critical to the encouragement of Irish Medium Education. We have witnessed too many issues stunting the natural growth and development of the Irish language such as the petty de-gaelicisation of a departmental fisheries vessel from Banríon Uladh to Queen of Ulster in 2016, the scrapping of Gaeltacht part-scholarships in the same year, the turning down of permission to proceed with the development proposals of a number of Irish Medium Schools and of course the refusal to repeal the antique and discriminatory Administration of Justice (Language) Act (Ireland) 1737 disallowing the use of Irish in the courts.

Meaningful bilingualism offers cultural benefits, educational benefits, economic benefits and even well documented health benefits. Bilingualism can offer the best of both worlds. So let’s be bi-lingual. Irish connects us to the land, to our ancestors and to a shared future. Whether the Gaelic heritage is Ulster, Scottish, British or Irish we may eventually come to the realisation that, as Seamus Heaney rightly pointed out, ‘Two buckets were easier carried than one’.